Within contemporary environmentalist movements, it is increasingly uncontentious that capitalism is the root of the problem: the massive demonstration in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organisation was against capitalism; in Britain, Reclaim the Streets have organised impressive demonstrations which are against the capitalist system as such.
Needless to say, and as we have already outlined here, we agree with this assessment.
But if capitalism is the enemy, what force can most effectively fight it, and bring about meaningful, lasting change? Capitalism is a system in which everything — and increasingly it is literally “everything”, down to the smallest detail of everyday life — is a commodity, something to be bought and sold. But it does something more than “commodify” our lives: it is a system based on large interconnected workplaces, whether in production or services, where the capitalists’ profits are made by exploiting the working class. That this is so is easily tested: the most powerful weapon working-class people have, most of the time, is to go on strike. Without our labour, the ruling class can’t make its profits.
The working class, the mass of people who work for a living, earning wages, who depend upon continuing to work to survive — rather than living off money made for them by other people’s labour — is the force within capitalism for serious change. Organised into large workplaces, and therefore with a tendency to form collective bodies to defend their interests, like trade unions, the working class is not only the basic oppressed class of capitalism: its experience often compels it into the most radical action, into creating, participating in, and leading movements which take on a wide range of issues outside the workplace.
We think if the environmental movement is to be successful, and is to protect the future of the planet, it needs to look to the organised working class. The participation of trade unions in the Seattle demonstrations was an inspiring step in the necessary direction in this respect.
Here we look at how the labour movement has played a vital role in environmental struggles.
Neither left nor right, but ahead?
Myths about the labour movement and the environment
By Nick Holden
When I was active in the Green Party in the late 1980s, one of the slogans we used claimed the Greens were “neither left nor right, but ahead”.
Rudolf Bahro, the East German dissident who became a leading figure in the German Greens, expressed the idea similarly: “What is really radical is to think from the standpoint of the interests of humanity as a whole... The world-historic mission of the proletariat was an illusion... We must think of quite new combinations if we are looking to a mass social force for a solution to the crisis.”1
This hostility to the left, and to the labour movement in general, was based on two related ideas: that the labour movement was not interested in the Green agenda, and that it was not a sufficient force for achieving that agenda, even if it could be convinced of it.
To some extent this hostility is receding now, with organisations like Reclaim the Streets working with unions on the London Underground to agitate for the continued provision of low-cost, accessible public transport. But the idea that the Green movement must aspire to create something qualitatively better than the labour movement rather than help socialists and others who wish to transform it into a better labour movement, lives on in many Greens.
The basic complaint of the Green movement was that trade unions were “only interested in jobs”, and that therefore they couldn’t be expected to relate positively to demands for reduced production and lower levels of consumption. But this oversimplifies both the nature and role of the labour movement and the solution to the environmental crisis. It is certainly true that trade unions are interested in defending jobs; since they are made up of people in work, who cannot afford to be out of work, this is hardly surprising. But unions have often run campaigns to reduce the overall amount of work being done, through demands for the shorter working week, for example, provided that it is the profits of employers, rather than the workers themselves, who pay for it. The sticking point has never been the headline issue of reducing production, but the fact that the capitalist class wants to make certain that the costs are paid by the working class and not by themselves.
In some industries, trade unions have been known to organise campaigns for a complete halt to the production of certain items on environmental grounds. During the 1970s, when the labour movement was still relatively buoyant and the question of peace and disarmament figured large in political thinking, many shop stewards committees at factories producing arms and related items produced cogent arguments for “conversion”: substituting new products for the weapons they were then being asked to manufacture. Their objectives were simple: to maintain employment for themselves and their members, but not at the cost of producing weapons of mass destruction. When Vickers decided to close their shipbuilding yard in Scotswood, Newcastle, in 1979, the 750 workers there undertook an investigation, which showed that there was a viable market for them to produce a range of recycling machinery (baling equipment and scrap sorters), but management would have none of it, and closed the works.
This experience was repeated frequently throughout the 1970s and early 1980s — long before the Green movement proper had taken off in the UK — and the outcome was almost universal: enthusiasm from the workers about conversion to non-military or non-nuclear technology, often to specifically environmentally-friendly production methods and outputs, but a refusal from management to investing their capital in such “adventures”. While the Green movement was happy to make propaganda about the fact that an understanding of environmental factors could actually create jobs (it is a general truth that production methods which are kinder on the environment tend to be more labour intensive than those which take no care of environmental concerns), rarely if ever did the movement seek to make common cause with the workers in the industries in question — preferring instead to paint the workers in each industry with the same brush as management; this, in itself, often served to drive workers back into defending “their” industry from criticism.
To be sure, there have been low points in the trade unions’ view of the Green movement: the engineering unions spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s denouncing those who were doubtful about nuclear power as wanting to drive the entire population of Sellafield out of work. But there are some trends here: when the rank and file, especially through a network of shop stewards or workplace representatives, are dominant, the unions are both more creative in their thinking and more effective in their action. When the unions are in retreat, and the national leaderships can set the tone, the demand for conversion is more likely to be replaced with one for defence of the status quo.
The Greens were making a mistake that others before them had made: assuming that the union leaderships were a true reflection of the interests and capabilities of the entire labour movement. In seeking to distance themselves from the union leaders, the Green movement in fact cut itself off from the one force in society capable of actually achieving the kind of transformation which most Greens want to see: the organised working class.
It is no accident of timing that the Green movement was on the rise precisely at a time when the organised labour movement was in decline. The “retreat from class” which sections of the left were making in response to a series of defeats for the working class led to a belief that the working class had demonstrated its permanent incapacity to conquer capitalism. Some took this as meaning that capitalism could not be conquered, others that it was still possible but would take a force greater than that of “just one class”. The former group includes some of those now surrounding Blair; the latter many who made the leap to Green politics in the late 1980s.
While those who saw no prospect of capitalism’s defeat set out to find a way of compromising with the system itself, the latter group sought a more principled compromise. They believed that a movement needed to be built across the classes if the environmental catastrophe was to be averted. But they deserted the working class without ever successfully establishing a bridge to the other side of the class divide. The Green movement as an alternative to the existing parties has stumbled, and in many places moved backwards from a high point about 10 years ago; in its place, the Green movement as an alternative to participation in party politics has grown up.
The lessons of the 1970s are simple, though. The ruling class is incapable, because of its drive for profit at any cost, of adapting itself adequately to the necessary demands of the Green movement. The working class is not only capable, it is also enthusiastic about taking up those demands and fighting for them, when the opportunity arises. It has demonstrated already that the question of our impact on the environment can be incorporated into its programme.
Indeed, the working class is the only force in society with both the capability and the motive for transforming, or even saving, the world.
1. R Bahro, Socialism and Survival, 1982. Heretic Books, London